Ireland abortion referendum: voters have freed women from this insidious law

A mural of Savita Halappanavar, who died from pregnancy complications after being refused an abortion. EPA

I write this sitting in a small café in Ranelagh, a prosperous part of Dublin. It is early on Saturday morning and, although you wouldn’t think it just by walking down the street, I may have woken in a new Ireland.

If exit polls are to be believed, an overwhelming majority of Irish people have voted to repeal the 8th amendment of the national constitution. The Irish Times/Ipsos MRBI poll suggested 68% of voters chose to repeal the amendment against 32% who were opposed. Another, by RTE put the repeal vote at 69.4%. The result is due to become clear around mid-morning.

This insidious, cruel and harmful provision was inserted in 1983 as a preemptive strike against women’s liberation. It has reduced women in pregnancy to a constitutional being with the right only not to die and the obligation to sacrifice all else to bring the foetus to term.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar cast his vote after vocally supporting repeal. PA

The sanitised story of the 8th amendment is that it recognises the right to life of the foetus with due regard to the equal right to life of the pregnant woman. The lived reality of this constitutional story is more than 170,000 journeys across the Irish Sea to access abortion, thousands of illegal abortions through self administration of the abortion pill, and countless women “caught out” and becoming mothers when they did not want to. It is part of a long, difficult and deliberate construction of Irish womanhood as linked inextricably to motherhood, of sex as stigma, and of establishment attempts to use the force of the law to keep us in our nation-building, post-colonial place.

No freedom without the freedom of women

Now men and women, the young and the old, parents and those without children, politicians (including those considered conservative), and generations of activists who always believed we would finally unshackle ourselves from this constitutional confinement have cast votes to usher in a country of free women and girls.

The path ahead will be bumpy and hard. As in every other country, the forces that oppose sexual freedom, bodily autonomy and women’s ethical agency will continue to do so. And they remain powerful. But they can no longer rely on a constitutional text to fuel their mission.

Under the next 36th amendment to the constitution “provision may be made by law for the regulation of termination of pregnancy”. That legislation will, should the count back up the exit polling, go through the political process and hopefully be completed by the end of the year. Until then we will continue to rely with gratitude on the kindness and care of doctors and nurses in the UK and elsewhere to provide the healthcare Irish women need. Today, as I watch the votes being counted, nine women will get on planes and go to London, Birmingham, Liverpool and Manchester for their abortions. But they will go knowing they are among the last.

Ní saoirse go saoirse na mban (There is no freedom until the freedom of women).

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